Plant buyer lobbies for feds’ blessing

VERNON — A New York company is asking federal regulators to green-light its acquisition of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant sometime later this year.

Representatives of NorthStar Group Services Inc., the proposed buyer of the shut-down Vernon plant, and Entergy, the current owner, hope to close the sale by the end of 2018.

But they're looking for regulatory approvals well before that: During a Jan. 24 meeting with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, an Entergy executive proposed that the NRC approve the plant's license transfer before the end of 2017, and he said he hopes the Vermont Public Service Board will OK the sale in the first quarter of next year.

That permitting schedule would allow significant planning and engineering work to happen before the sale is finalized, thus speeding up the Vermont Yankee decommissioning process, said Scott State, NorthStar's chief executive officer.

That “should allow us to initiate decommissioning a couple years ahead of the planned [2021] start,” State said.

For some, however, the start of the federal permitting process for the Vermont Yankee sale has raised more questions than answers. There's a continuing push for the NRC to hold a public meeting somewhere in the vicinity of Vermont Yankee so that more local residents can ask those questions.

“This is a radical shift in regulation, and it deserves more than a fast-tracking,” said Deb Katz, Citizens Awareness Network executive director.

Reviewing the sale

Katz's organization, an anti-nuclear group based in northern Massachusetts, was among many participants in a 90-minute meeting held Jan. 24 at NRC headquarters in Rockville, Maryland.

A formal NRC application to transfer Vermont Yankee's license to NorthStar is expected sometime in February. But the Jan. 24 “pre-submittal” session served as the kickoff for the federal agency's review, and State started the meeting by telling NRC staffers why he and Entergy executives think the sale is a good idea.

First and foremost, NorthStar is pledging to have most of the Vermont Yankee site - aside from a spent-fuel storage facility - decommissioned and restored by the end of 2030. That's decades sooner than Entergy had planned.

NorthStar has committed to starting the project in 2021. But, as he first disclosed in last month's application to the state, State told NRC staffers that it's possible NorthStar could begin work in 2019 and finish the job by the end of 2026.

That depends, however, on NorthStar getting a head-start on preliminary planning work. And State, in an interview after the NRC meeting, tied that head start directly to an expedient federal and state permitting process.

“There's a planning process, and there are a lot of long lead-time items,” State said. If there's uncertainty about when or whether the Vermont Yankee sale will be approved, he added, “we wouldn't commit the resources and spend the money to do those things.”

If the Vermont Yankee project gets the go-ahead, State said his company will bring extensive experience to Vernon. NorthStar is “the largest demolition and facility abatement company in the world,” he said.

'We're not here to cut corners'

While NorthStar's nuclear experience is limited to smaller reactors, State told the NRC that his company has taken down fossil-fuel plants much larger than Vermont Yankee. And State again touted the nuclear, engineering, and waste-disposal expertise of three other proposed partners in the Vermont Yankee job.

“We're not here to cut corners,” State said. “We're here to do the job right.”

The NRC will evaluate the technical qualifications of those companies. The agency also will look at financial qualifications to determine whether NorthStar has access to adequate capital to finish the cleanup job.

As part of the proposed sale, NorthStar will take over Vermont Yankee's decommissioning and site-restoration trust funds. The company's deal with Entergy requires that the decommissioning trust fund contain $513.5 million when the sale closes, according to documents accompanying NorthStar's NRC presentation.

At last report, the trust fund held $561.6 million. But Entergy continues to spend from that fund, and State said Entergy may have to provide some “top-off” money at the time of the sale if the fund has sunk below the agreed-upon amount.

NorthStar's NRC presentation also included some financial projections: The cost of terminating Vermont Yankee's NRC license is expected to come in at $498.5 million, the contractor estimates.

Within that figure, decontamination and decommissioning ($223.2 million) and removal of large plant components ($95 million) are the largest items. Also included is project management ($93.3 million); facility management ($83.5 million); and decommissioning of the spent fuel storage site ($3.5 million).

The figures submitted to the NRC don't include site restoration, which falls within the state's purview.

NorthStar's projected license-termination price tag also didn't include long-term management of Vermont Yankee's spent nuclear fuel stockpile. NorthStar has said fuel management could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but the Jan. 24 documents showed only a $20 million allocation from the plant's trust fund for that purpose.

$20 million called 'reserve'

State explained that NorthStar views that $20 million as a “reserve” amount to cover costs when needed. The bulk of Vermont Yankee's spent-fuel management funding, he maintained, will come via recovery of money from the U.S. Department of Energy due to the department's failure to meet its statutory obligation to remove spent fuel from plants like Yankee.

That plan spurred some questions at the NRC meeting. And Katz, speaking later that day, argued that NorthStar is “assuming an asset” that doesn't exist unless the federal government agrees to pay or loses a lawsuit filed by NorthStar.

Both State and Steven Scheurich, Entergy's nuclear decommissioning vice president, countered that it's standard practice to recover such funds from the Department of Energy. For example, they provided documents from a 2013 court decision awarding $235.4 million in federal funds to Connecticut Yankee, Maine Yankee, and Yankee Atomic Power Co.

“There's precedent from every nuclear plant that's been shut down for recoveries on a regular basis from [the Department of Energy],” State said.

Given the complexities of the Vermont Yankee sale - and given that it is, in the words of an NRC official, a “unique” proposal - some observers are hoping that the federal agency sees fit to schedule a public meeting in Vermont.

Jack Parrott, an NRC senior project manager, said there's no requirement for a public meeting but promised that “we'll take that under advisement as we go forward.”

Public input

Parrott noted that, once the NRC publishes notice of the license transfer, there will be an opportunity for public input. NRC officials said they'll also be posting Vermont Yankee-related documents online.

But local resident Lorie Cartwright, a trustee with the Brattleboro-based New England Coalition, asked that the NRC “err on the side of granting public meetings.” Like others, she had to call in to the Jan. 24 meeting to comment on the Vermont Yankee sale process.

“This is obviously of great importance to our region,” Cartwright said.

The Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel picked up that flag later in the week.

At the panel's Jan. 26 meeting in Brattleboro, a majority of members voted to ask the NRC to hold a public meeting in southern Vermont regarding the proposed plant sale as well as the expected modifications to Vermont Yankee's Post-Shutdown Decommissioning Activities Report.

“The public needs to be listened to, and the public needs to have the opportunity to say what we want to say,” said Kate O'Connor, the advisory panel's chairwoman. “To not make a request to have them come here, I think that we're not doing our due diligence as the panel that we are.”

Two Entergy representatives on the advisory panel abstained from that vote.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates